In order to shoot great looking video, you need to control your camera, and one of the best ways to wrangle your recorder is to pop it onto a tripod. So, go out and get yourself a set of sticks, and you’ll shoot video like a pro. Well, ok, there’s a little more to it than that. To start with, not all tripods are created equally, so you need to make sure you are using a video-ready model, and there are a few techniques for using your tripod to its full potential. Terrific tripoding is a careful combination of tool and technique. In this entry, we’ll hit the highlights to cover both.
Top Tripod Features
Before we talk about techniques, we must discuss some of the essential features of a video production tripod. There are many tripod models available in local drug stores and department stores for just a few bucks. They may have three legs and a camera mount plate, but most of them are not suitable for shooting anything close to professional looking video. Here are some of the most important features to look for in a video tripod.
The tripod’s head mounts your camera to the legs, and allows it to pan and tilt. It also supplies resistance, so your camera stays put without drifting or falling out of position when you let go. The smoothest moves come from true fluid heads. In terms of heads, they are the exclusive choice of serious shooters as they let the camera operator start and stop moves smoothly, easing in and out of pans and tilts and the varying of speed through the duration of the movement without the kinds of sticky hitches that are common to cheap tripods.
When you look at legs, it’s important to consider their strength, weight and the type of latches that secure the extensions. The strength of a tripod is gauged by the amount of weight it is rated to hold. This spec is readily published in a tripod’s marketing documentation. The key here is to select a tripod that has legs that are fast and easy to extend, and that will not flex under the weight of your camcorder.
Your tripod’s maximum height is another important spec to check. You will want to be able to shoot while standing up straight, so the tripod’s mounting plate should be about chin-high when the legs are extended. For a 6-foot tall shooter, like me, that means a tripod that stands at approximately 60 inches before the camera is attached. For the record, cranking up the center extension doesn’t count. Cranking up that skinny pole counteracts almost all the stability the tripod provides, so make sure you understand what is meant by the “maximum height” listed in the specs.
In order to anchor your shots, it’s important that your tripod’s feet grip the ground without slipping. Watch out for cheap feet made of hard rubber or plastic. They may slide on floors, and break easily. Instead, look for models with rubber feet mounted with metal hardware. Many tripods have retractable rubber covers that can be pulled back to reveal spikes, which are great for shooting on grass.
Top Tripod Techniques
Once you have a video-approved tripod to work with, there are a few techniques that will help set you up for successful shooting.
5. Level Your Head
Whether you are shooting from a flat floor, or from the side of a mountain, it is important to make sure your camera sits level on the tripod so that your shots don’t dip downhill as you pan. Most tripods include a bubble level (typically with a circular target to identify level). Most models require that you level the head by adjusting the height of each leg until the bubble centers in the target. Others have a ball mount that lets you rotate the head within a mounting cup so you can level the camera without adjusting your legs.
6. Position Your Legs
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the position of your tripod’s legs: shooting with one-leg-forward, or with two-legs-forward. When shooting on level ground, how you position the legs depends largely on user preference and the style and position of your viewfinder, as this dictates where the camera operator needs to stand. With traditional side-mounted-flip screens and eyecups, it is common to place one leg forward. This allows you to stand in close to the camera between the legs without being obstructed. Cameras with large rear-facing viewfinders, like studio cameras and DSLRs, however, require the shooter to stand directly behind the camera, so pointing one leg forward can provide a good gap for the shooter at the back. If you are shooting on a downhill slope, it is wise to point two legs forward no matter what type of camera you are shooting with, as this provides more stability.
7. Adjust Your Drags
One of the most crucial aspects of making smooth pans and tilts is adjusting the amount of tension on the “drags.” Pan and tilt drags are adjusted separately by turning corresponding thumbscrews to increase or decrease resistance. If the drags are too loose, the camera with flail loosely. If they are too snug, they can grab and cause jerky movements. Each user needs to adjust the drags to his or her own preference, but generally, they should be loose enough to permit smooth movement, but tight enough that the camera will not drift out of position on its own accord. It is also wise to match the tension of the pan and tilt drags so that they provide equal and consistent resistance.
8. Move Smoothly
When it's time to make a shot move, it's helpful to see the process not as one movement, but as three distinct parts: a beginning composition, an ending composition, and a smooth transition from one to the other. Be cautious to not commit to a camera move without knowing where you are going. Indecisive camera moves are the mark of an amateur, so, as with most things, it is wise to begin with the end in mind. In order to see where you are going it is essential that you pull your eye away from the eyecup so you can see the scene in front of you, and to stand so you can rotate the camera without having to shuffle your feet or take a step. I recommend framing your ending shot first, and positioning your feet so that you will be standing comfortably at the end of the move. Once you have established your ending position, swing the camera back to the starting point and compose your opening shot. This may require stretching into a slightly awkward position, but as you make your move you will be moving from instability to stability, and it is a stable ending that counts. Don’t just whip your camera from start to stop. Start your move slowly, accelerate into the move, then decelerate and slow to a stop as you reach your closing composition. If you are shooting to edit, it can be helpful to shoot the move at a few different speeds: slow, medium and fast. This will give you options in the edit bay.
Ultimately, operating a tripod is a physical feat that requires at least a small amount of dexterity in addition to theory. The best way to get good at it is to practice. So spend some time working with your tripod when you have the freedom to experiment and make mistakes. That way you will be ready to roll when you need to shoot shots that count.
Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award winning writer, producer and host. He is an independent producer in Nashville, TN.